On the meaning of “Sangha”
Reverend Marvin Harada

Minister's Blog Reverend Marvin Harada

This month I would like to share excerpts from a wonderful essay by Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Vietnamese Buddhist master and author of numerous books on Buddhism, on the meaning of “Sangha.”

The practice of Sangha

A Sangha is a community of friends practicing the dharma together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness.  The essence of a sangha is awareness, understanding, acceptance, harmony and love.

Thich Nhat Hanh points out that when we say we take refuge in the “Sangha,” that this is not a statement, but it is a practice.  By that he means that we learn and “practice” Buddhism together as a sangha.  He also points out that for him, the elements of a sangha are not just human, the trees, water, air, birds, and anything can be members of our sangha. 

Sangha as our roots

Modern society has become fragmented.  Families have become broken and people feel rejected or displaced from society.  We have lost our “roots.”  Without roots, a tree cannot live.  Without our roots in a Sangha, an individual cannot become transformed or find a connection with others. 

The sangha is a place to practice for the transformation and the healing of self and society

A person who sinks their roots into a sangha, will have their life transformed, and their life will begin to transform others in the sangha and in society.

We need a Sangha

Without being in a sangha, without being supported by a group of friends who are motivated by the same ideal and practice, we cannot go far.

Many people new to Buddhism only know Buddhism through books.  They are often referred to as “nightstand Buddhists,” because they always read books on their “nightstand” but have never joined a sangha.  There is only so far a person can go by reading books and learning about Buddhism on your own.  You need teachers and friends to support, guide, and share the teachings with you.  It is one thing to read about Buddhism, but it is another thing to see that teaching manifest in a real person. 

How a Sangha helps us

When we throw a rock into a river the rock will sink.  But if we have a boat, the boat can carry hundreds of pounds of rocks and it will not sink.  The same thing is true with our sorrow and pain.  If we have a boat, we can carry our pain and sorrow, and we will not sink into the river of suffering.  And what is that boat?  That boat is, first of all, the energy of mindfulness that you generate by your practice.  That boat is also the sangha—the community of practice consisting of brothers and sisters in the dharma.

Without friends to support us, we might fall into a deep hole when faced with tragedy, sorrow, or any number of difficult life experiences.  Our sangha is our support group of friends and fellow travelers, who listen to us, speak with us, sometimes scold us, as we travel the journey of life. 

Why the Sangha isn’t perfect

You don’t need a perfect sangha – a family or a community doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be helpful.  In fact, the sangha at the time of the Buddha was not perfect.  But it was enough for people to take refuge in, because in the sangha there were people who had enough compassion, solidity, and insight to embrace others who did not have as much compassion, solidity and insight.  I also have some difficulties with my sangha, but I’m very happy because everyone tries to practice in my sangha. 

In our interactions with others in our sangha, there may have been times when someone said something that offended you, or upset you.  You might have even felt like leaving, or quitting the sangha, because you were that upset.  However, Thich Nhat Hanh points out that our sangha is not perfect because we are not perfect.  Even the Buddha’s sangha was not perfect.  But if the sangha was perfect and everyone was perfect, wouldn’t that be strange as well?  It is our imperfections that make us think, that make us reflect.  We should not be afraid of the imperfections of ourselves and others. 

In the sangha there must be difficult people.  These difficult people are a good thing for you – they will test your capacity of sangha-building and practicing.   

I take refuge in the Sangha

 When a situation is dangerous, you need to escape, you need to take refuge in a place that is safe, that is solid. Earth is something we can take refuge in because it is solid.  We can build houses on earth, but we cannot build on sand.  The sangha is the same.  Mindfulness, concentration and insight have built up sanghas and individuals that are solid, so when you take refuge in the sangha, you take refuge in the most solid elements.

 We live in an instable world, filled with terrorist attacks and many things to fear.  We wonder where we can be safe.  As we live in a world that is becoming more fearful, we can take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.  We can surround ourselves with people who are solid….solid in the Dharma.  Such an environment will give us a real sense of safety and protection, despite the changing nature of the world that we live in.

Namuamidabutsu, Rev. Marvin Harada. 

Excerpts taken from Friends on the Path:  Living Spiritual Communities, by Thich Nhat Hanh (2002).